Life under the basket is a risky place to conduct one’s work. Errant passes whiz past, players tumble to the floor at your feet and sweat glistens on the hardwood around you. For 40 minutes, this is home for Gibi Saini, and there’s no place he’d rather be.
Just 16 years old, Saini is a Grade 11 student at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School and has quickly made a name for himself as one of the Fraser Valley’s rising sports photographers.
Although constantly working toward improving his craft, Saini has come to be known as one of the leading individuals responsible for helping promote and celebrate the events and achievements of Abbotsford’s flourishing basketball community. His intent with photography is simple.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to tell these stories,” Saini said. “When I started shooting basketball, I now look back and realize those photos are really bad, but people still shared and posted them because they were proud of what they did.”
“I realized that I should help my community to get more photos. It’s just a need that I never knew was necessary.”
Saini was born in Modena, Italy, to Indian parents, who in search of greater opportunities, eventually moved the family back to India before the family ultimately arrived in British Columbia in 2017. Saini began attending Abbotsford Middle School. He was looking for ways to meet new people and become involved in the community. His friend Jesse Davis suggested he look into programming available through the Abbotsford Basketball Association (ABA).
Saini and his brother, Edy, quickly developed an affinity for basketball and the sport served as a vehicle for making new friends and also meeting likeminded people who were interested in not only playing basketball, but also showcasing it.
Saini attended Yale Secondary alumnus and current Fraser Valley Bandits guard Marek Klassen’s Abby Made basketball camp in the summer of 2018. One of the videographers documenting the camp was Daniel Adimora, founder and president of DD Nation. The two exchanged information and Saini returned home mulling ways that he could learn photography and promote the different facets that comprise the Abbotsford basketball scene.
First, he would need a camera. Saini rummaged through old boxes of photos at home and stumbled across what he affectionally remembers as a “really old camera that somehow took really good pictures.” It was a Canon EOS 1000D. Eager to develop his craft, Saini began looking for opportunities to capture content, but also expose himself to people and places that he could photograph. He began noticing ABA stickers placed on backboards around the city where new mesh had been supplied for rims.
The ground was still wet from an early morning rainfall that had dampened the blacktop, but Saini saw the court differently. The hoop’s reflection was cast perfectly in a puddle at Saini’s feet. He snapped the photo and submitted it to the ABA for consideration. His hope? That the not-for-profit basketball organization would share the photo on social media and would consider him for future gigs.
“We met him when he just came into our gym looking to play. When kids are brand new our goal is to help them get connected. We wanted him and his brother to be in the gym as much as possible and then when we found out that he was into taking photos we wanted to provide him with that opportunity,” said ABA president Ashlyen Singh. “He’s just been growing as far as talent goes and he’s always willing to be involved.”
The timing could not have been better. The photo was well-received across ABA’s social pages and arguably the city’s most historic basketball tournament, the Snowball Classic, was around the corner and ABA needed to cover the event. High school teams from the United States, as well as top-ranked programs from across the province were making the trip to Abbotsford Senior for the annual showdown.
Saini considers the tournament one of his favourite events to shoot. Several of B.C.’s top college and university exports have made a name for themselves at the tournament and Saini began to learn the ins and outs of sports photography – even if it meant the hard way.
At one point during the 2019 Snowball Classic Saini lost track of the ball, only to feel it hitting him square in the stomach moments later when a tipped pass deflected his way. Saini remembers the memory fondly because it was one of the many early experiential lessons that he has picked up along the way as he continues to make stops in gymnasiums across the Fraser Valley. With each stop, he furthers his craft and cements his dedication toward telling the stories of Fraser Valley youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see photos of themselves in action on the court or field.
“Photos are a memory. You can forget what happened during Snowball. But when you look at the pictures all of those memories come back all of a sudden,” Saini said. “When I see everyone’s reaction to my photography it means a lot to me. It’s the satisfaction of helping someone out. I love the feeling of taking photos for someone and them appreciating my work.”
In a time in which newsrooms are shrinking and the state of local sports coverage is at the mercy of the limited resources available, reporters are often put in a position where they must rely on photos that are submitted on behalf of individuals or organizations that are subjects within a particular story.
Journalists want to be on location capturing the action in person and interacting with sources face-to-face, but especially outside of major metropolitan markets, it is rare that reporters stick solely to their “beat” – the scope of coverage that a reporter typically covers on a daily basis. Sports, arts and business journalists straddle the line between their respective areas of expertise and help out by covering stories where and when possible.
The result is that some stories go untold and those that do often lack the on-sight coverage and photography that can bring a story to life.
This makes Saini’s work all the more important. Over the past two years since Saini began practicing photography, he has shot a variety of sports – from basketball, to football, to rugby and more. Games, practices, tournaments and championships. Saini is a storyteller with a camera in hand.
His photos cement the moments that define some of Abbotsford’s up and coming athletes’ high school careers and will serve as the cornerstones that they will reflect upon when one day they look back at their achievements.
This past winter he was on hand at the Langley Events Centre the night history was made. The Abbotsford Senior Panthers won the AAA senior girls provincial title – the program’s first basketball title since 1984.
Panthers star Marin Lenz scored 44 points and collected eight rebounds and four assists on her way to being named the tournament’s most valuable player. Lenz has since announced her commitment to the University of Calgary Dinos’ women’s basketball team – one of the top programs in Canada. There is no doubt that championship game will be remembered as once of the most exciting moments of her young basketball career.
Saini was on hand to photograph the moment.
“When you’re actually there—and this is why I prefer to be there—you get a feel for the game. You can hear the coaches yelling, you can hear the players squeaking on the floor or sweating. You just get a better feel for the game. When you’re writing the story it feels more legit to me if you’re there,” said Ben Lypka, a sports reporter for the Abbotsford News.
“There are little tidbits or nuggets that you can miss if you’re not actually at the game. The fact that someone’s there taking photos – it generates interest for your organization.”
It is a brisk January night in Abbotsford and Saini sits cross-legged on a diagonal angle no more than 10 feet from the action. Two Canada West rivals, the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Cascades and the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds, are locked in a close game.
The Cascades miss a shot on the offensive end and the Thunderbirds are quickly racing up the floor in transition. It is at this moment that Saini guiltily admits he was committing one of his bad habits: taking a “sneak peek” at pictures after snapping a shot. The habit seems innocent enough, but in basketball, even the unlikeliest of moments can set the stage for a special moment to be caught on camera.
Star UBC guard Manroop Singh sidestepped his way past a pair of Cascades defenders and faked a pass mid stride. He appeared to be caught in no man’s land. At the last moment, Saini sensed that a remarkable play might be happening. In a reactive jolt he pointed the camera and clicked.
The photo that resulted from the impulsive moment turned out to be one of Saini’s best. His photo revealed a highlight-reel wraparound pass courtesy of Singh to teammate Grant Shephard. In fact, the photo bears a striking resemblance to a similar pass completed by fellow B.C. native and NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash.
Saini would be the first to tell you that he got lucky – a humble and honest response that reflects the reactive decision of a young and talented photographer determined to develop his skills and contribute to the fabric of the province’s growing basketball community. With each photo that he takes, he gives coaches, players, instructors, parents and fans a keepsake that will forever endure.
In doing so, he is providing crucial building blocks for individuals and organizations to promote the initiatives, games and events that are providing podiums for youth and athletes to grow.
“There’s just an insatiable appetite for quality still photography. I think a number of years ago there was a sense that video was on the rise, but I feel like Instagram has given it new life in some respects,” said Dan Kinvig, a former reporter for the Abbotsford News for nearly 10 years and current communications coordinator for the Cascades.
“You can’t wait for others to come and tell your stories. You got to do it yourself and I think capitalizing on photography and the engaging nature of photos is a really key way of doing that.”
Photos represent connections to Saini. This past year he travelled with the Abbotsford Senior football team. Over the course of the season Saini had contributed video edits, photos, and custom designed graphics for several of the team’s players, many of whom he has grown to call close friends. The group experienced the highs and lows of victory and defeat. Saini used his lens to immortalize each game and along the way provided the type of content this is rare for amateur athletes to enjoy.
When the team lost its last game of the season, several of the players could not help but cry after an emotional final loss. Saini felt the same trigger of emotion. He was part of the Panthers family.
“I made videos for them and expected nothing in return because it was just my team and my friends. I feel like photography is a way for me to socialize, to build connections, to build emotions and to build friendships,” Saini said.
Saini does not know what his future holds, but his dreams extend beyond photography. The Saini family is a tightknit group and Saini is a mindful mentor for his younger brother Edy. Saini aspires one day to potentially help out with his father’s new trucking company and he hopes that one day he can repay his mother back for all the basketball games across the Fraser Valley that she has driven him to in order to take photos.
Although a hobby, photography will always be a part of Saini. He recognizes how his growth in skillset within the photographic medium has helped his own development also. He dreams of getting a post-secondary degree in business and seeing how far photography can take him – whether it be to the baseline of an NBA court or otherwise.
Even if that opportunity does not arrive, Saini is grateful for the relationships he has made through photography and for the doors that have been opened by his craft.
“Photography is a way for me to naturally grow into a better person. My ultimate goal is just to connect with people,” Saini said.